BWW Reviews: In the Battle of the BARBIEREs, On Site Opera Picks a Winner

By: Jun. 19, 2015
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David Blalock as Almaviva with Monica Yunus (in window)
in the Fabbri Mansion courtyard
Soprano Monica Yunus as Rosina, baritone Andrew Wilkowske as Figaro

Pity the poor also-rans in operatic history: Leoncavallo's LA BOHEME and Rossini's OTELLO are perhaps the most famous titles. Oh, yes: We mustn't forget Giovanni Paisiello's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA--and after hearing On Site Opera's production in New York last week, we can't. Downstairs, upstairs, in milady's library, On Site introduced much of its audience last week to an "alternative universe" version of the Almavivas and the wily barber, Figaro, in a BARBIERE composed decades before the familiar version by Rossini.

Based on the same play by Beaumarchais, the first part of the Figaro Trilogy, this is a different animal altogether from its more familiar cousin: A pocket opera that manages to make all its points with a cast of seven, a chamber orchestra and, in Artistic Director Eric Einhorn's very appealing production staged in the Renaissance-style Fabbri Mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it was a sheer delight.

Monica Yunus, David Blalock, Isaiah Musik-Ayala and Andrew Wilkowske in the Fabbri Mansion library

Today, the version of the story by Paisiello has long been overshadowed by the uber-famous Rossini opera in the battle of the BARBIEREs. It's hard to believe that, at the start of the 19th century, the operatic version of BARBIERE that everyone was humming was by Paisiello. It was so popular that Rossini's audacity in composing a competitive version--first called ALMAVIVA--was incomprehensible.

Indeed, Paisiello's opera has a score that's not without its charms--particularly in a pair of arias for Rosina, performed wonderfully by soprano Monica Yunus, and its buoyant, hilariously evil version of "La calunnia" from the sonorous Basilio of bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala. The cast, in general, showed off the score's strengths: David Blalock's lovely tenor was just right and appropriately droll as Almaviva, while the smooth baritone of Andrew Wilkowske made the most of Figaro, who is less central here than in Rossini. The Dr. Bartolo conceived by librettist Giuseppe Petrosellini is just as big a blowhard in this version of the story and bass-baritone Rod Nelman milks the comedy without going overboard. The cast is rounded out by neat performances from baritone Benjamin Bloomfield and soprano Jessica Rose Futran as the servants.

But it's hard to hear all the song cues in the libretto without waiting for the well-known and frequently audacious melodies of Rossini. Instead, we are treated to unfamiliar music that is, for the most part, no match for the more famous versions, despite a winning cast and the lovely performance of the orchestra under Music Director Geoffrey McDonald. (Kudos for the usual continuo music played on guitar here by Liz Faure.)

That's really not the point, as far as On Site is concerned. It succeeds brilliantly in making opera-going an intimate experience, where the singers are a few feet away from the audience and drawing us into the story in a way that a night at the Met or any other grand opera house can hardly ever do. The action has been updated to the early decades of the 20th century, when the mansion was built, staged in a small front courtyard and in its library and, for once, it fits the action neatly. While there's no scenery beside the building itself, the costumes by Candida K. Nichol and wigs and makeup from Ellyn Miller were just right.

It will be interesting to see what On Site has up its sleeve when it continues its "alternate universe" look at the Almavivas and Figaro next June with the North American premiere of Marcos Portugal's MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, written 13 years after Mozart. According to the program, "Portugal stays more grounded in the original play than the more famous operatic adaptation." I can hardly wait to hear whether he can out-Mozart's Mozart.


Photos by Rebecca Fay